In consultation with your faculty thesis advisor, you will articulate a broad beginning of a thesis topic. Through your initial research in preparation for submitting your thesis proposal and preliminary bibliography, you will begin to narrow your thesis topic to an appropriate scope.
It's crucial to confirm early on that there are enough sources available to you to complete your research on your selected topic.
You also want to identify some key secondary sources. It's crucial to place your thesis in the framework of some larger scholarly conversations, and identifying early on what scholars you are engaging will be a huge help.
The citations in secondary sources will often lead you to primary sources.
As you search through library catalogs, take note (literally make lists) of the Library of Congress Subject Headings associated with your topic. Search broader and narrower than how you are articulating your topic. The subject headings will be the same in other library catalogs and databases, and that language provides crucial keyword searching terms.
When you are searching in library catalogs for book length studies about your topic, remember to search broader than your topic, as well as in narrower related sub-topics. You may not need to read/use the entire book but may find some crucial chapters or even crucial pages in a longer work. Use table of contents and indexes effectively. Peruse the bibliographies and footnotes in your secondary sources for references to other sources.
Before you begin searching for primary sources, ask yourself: What types of sources are most likely to comment on my topic? Newspapers and magazines, personal narrative sources like memoirs and letters, government documents, the papers of organizations, scholarly journals of the historical period (ask a librarian and your advisor about how to handle a "scholarly article" as a primary source?) You will search for different types of sources using different techniques.
Use the Advanced Search screen in Vassar Library Catalog to:
* place limits on your search by location. language or document type. Limiting to Microtext is one way of perusing some of Vassar's primary sources.
* do "Subject" searches. The Subject search of the Advanced Search will look for keywords ONLY in the Subject fields of catalog records. Knowing the vocabulary used in the subject searches will help you do effective searches of library collections. For example, Library of Congress Subject Headings use the following keywords to indicate primary sources: sources, letters, interviews, speeches, personal narratives, diaries, correspondence, sermons, notebooks, sketches, description and travel, treaties, pamphlets, biography (includes memoirs), newspapers, periodicals, pictorial works, art, architecture, portraits, caricatures and cartoons, cookery, decorative arts, furniture, material culture, guide books, maps, fiction, poetry, periodicals, newspapers, bibliography, early works to 1800
It's not a perfect system, but an effective technique. Example search: (united states women) AND (sources or correspondence)
* find Reference sources like encyclopedias and historical dictionaries by limiting to "Reference" instead of "View Entire Collection. Never underestimate how helpful these sources are in establishing historical context, suggesting keywords, identifying related people/events/places for your topic and providing bibliographies of important primary or secondary sources
* identify digital collections of primary sources. Some of the digital primary sources that appear in our catalog are from unique databases that are more effectively searched in their native interface. If you find some digital sources in our catalog your are interested in finding more of, ask a librarian.
Some tips for effective meetings with your librarian and thesis advisers:
* Bring a working bilbiography with you. Even if you're not sure about many of the sources on there, it will give your adviser an idea of what work you are doing and what direction you are going in.
* If you're looking for a particular source you found cited somewhere else, show your librarian the source you found the citation in.
* It helps to have an idea about the types of sources you are interested in finding. Is it a personal narrative, a foreign newspaper, a magazine written from a particular political perspective?